Intellectuals and Authoritarianism

In the preceding post I quoted the German political theorist, Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). The quotation is from a book published in 1926, seven years before Schmitt joined the Nazi Party. But Schmitt’s attraction to authoritarianism long predates his party membership. In 1921, according to Wikipedia,

Schmitt became a professor at the University of Greifswald, where he published his essay Die Diktatur (on dictatorship), in which he discussed the foundations of the newly established Weimar Republic, emphasising the office of the Reichspräsident. In this essay, Schmitt compared and contrasted what he saw as the effective and ineffective elements of the new constitution of his country. He saw the office of the president as a comparatively effective element, because of the power granted to the president to declare a state of exception (Ausnahmezustand). This power, which Schmitt discussed and implicitly praised as dictatorial,[21] was more in line with the underlying mentality of executive power than the comparatively slow and ineffective processes of legislative power reached through parliamentary discussion and compromise.

Shades of Woodrow Wilson, the holder of an earned doctorate and erstwhile academician who had recently been succeeded as president of the United States by Warren G. Harding. Wilson

believed the Constitution had a “radical defect” because it did not establish a branch of government that could “decide at once and with conclusive authority what shall be done.”…

He also wrote that charity efforts should be removed from the private domain and “made the imperative legal duty of the whole,” a position which, according to historian Robert M. Saunders, seemed to indicate that Wilson “was laying the groundwork for the modern welfare state.”

Another renowned German academic, the philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), also became a Nazi in 1933. Whereas Schmitt never expressed regret or doubts about his membership in the party. Heidegger did, though perhaps not sincerely:

In his postwar thinking, Heidegger distanced himself from Nazism, but his critical comments about Nazism seem “scandalous” to some since they tend to equate the Nazi war atrocities with other inhumane practices related to rationalisation and industrialisation, including the treatment of animals by factory farming. For instance in a lecture delivered at Bremen in 1949, Heidegger said: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”…

In [a 1966 interview for Der Spiegel], Heidegger defended his entanglement with National Socialism in two ways: first, he argued that there was no alternative, saying that he was trying to save the university (and science in general) from being politicized and thus had to compromise with the Nazi administration. Second, he admitted that he saw an “awakening” (Aufbruch) which might help to find a “new national and social approach,” but said that he changed his mind about this in 1934, largely prompted by the violence of the Night of the Long Knives.

In his interview Heidegger defended as double-speak his 1935 lecture describing the “inner truth and greatness of this movement.” He affirmed that Nazi informants who observed his lectures would understand that by “movement” he meant National Socialism. However, Heidegger asserted that his dedicated students would know this statement was no eulogy for the Nazi Party. Rather, he meant it as he expressed it in the parenthetical clarification later added to Introduction to Metaphysics (1953), namely, “the confrontation of planetary technology and modern humanity.”

The eyewitness account of Löwith from 1940 contradicts the account given in the Der Spiegel interview in two ways: that he did not make any decisive break with National Socialism in 1934, and that Heidegger was willing to entertain more profound relations between his philosophy and political involvement.

Schmitt and Heidegger were far from the only German intellectuals who were attracted to Nazism, whether out of philosophical conviction or expediency. More to the point, as presaged by my inclusion of Woodrow Wilson’s views, Schmitt and Heidegger were and are far from the only intellectual advocates of authoritarianism. Every academic, of any nation, who propounds government action that usurps the functions of private institutions is an authoritarian, whether or not he admits it to himself. Whether they are servants of an overtly totalitarian regime, like Schmitt and Heidegger, or of a formally libertarian one, like Wilson, they are all authoritarians under the skin.

Why? Because intellectualism is essentially rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. [“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays]

If you have everything “figured out”, what is more natural than the desire to make it so? It takes a truly deep thinker to understand that everything can’t be “figured out”, and that rationalism is bunk. That is why intellectuals of the caliber of Oakeshott, Friederich Hayek, and Thomas Sowell are found so rarely in academia, and why jackboot-lickers like Paul Krugman abound.

(See also “Academic Bias“, “Intellectuals and Capitalism“,”Intellectuals and Society: A Review“, and “Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge“.)

Save Me from Self-Appointed Saviors

A recent NYT piece by Richard Zacks (“How Dry We Aren’t“) highlights the antics of Theodore Roosevelt:

When Theodore Roosevelt was police commissioner [of New York City], from 1895 to 1897, he tried to stop the sales of beer, wine and liquor on Sundays in saloons.

Men and women, who worked six days a week in that era, were not amused. New York State Sabbath laws already forbade attending sporting events or theater performances, or selling groceries, after 10 a.m. on Sundays; the excise laws also made it illegal to sell alcohol in bars, saloons and taverns all 24 hours of the Lord’s Day.

New Yorkers in droves defied that particular edict. (Sunday actually marked the barkeep’s biggest sales day.) Saloon owners handed a bribe to precinct cops who forwarded some loot to Tammany politicians, and the city’s thirsty could discreetly slip in the side doors of saloons. For almost 40 years, it was a popular pragmatic compromise.

Enter Roosevelt. Fearless and bullheaded, the new commissioner vowed to enforce the law, both to root out bribery in the Police Department and also to reunite families on Sundays….

Roosevelt’s liquor crackdown backfired…. The city’s spirit of place, what Stephen Crane once dubbed New York’s “wild impulse,” refused to be tamed.

Theodore Roosevelt the reformer was deeply proud of his efforts to clean up New York but in his illustrious later days, running for governor, then for vice president, then president, he never won a majority vote in the city. Never take a beer away from a New Yorker.

If only it were that easy to subvert the intentions of zealous office-holders.

In another recent NYT piece (“The C.E.O. in Politics“), David Brooks observes that

great leaders tend to have an instrumental mentality. They do not feel the office is about them. They are just God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause. Lincoln felt he was God’s instrument in preserving the union. F.D.R. felt he was an instrument to help the common man and defeat fascism.

Whatever FDR felt, he was not a great leader. Nor was his distant cousin, Teddy Roosevelt. What they shared with other so-called great leaders was overwhelming ego: the belief that their wishes should be everyone’s wishes. And, with the help of compliant Congresses and Supreme Courts, they made it so.

TR spoke and acted as if he were God’s instrument. As president, his aspiration to savior-hood led him to embrace Progressivism (e.g., trust-busting). His actions brought an end to 40 years of rapid economic growth, which — contrary to myth — had uplifted the masses as well as the “robber barons.” After a too-brief respite from dictatorship, under Taft, Woodrow Wilson (another “leader” who thought he was an instrument of God) extended the Progressive state, and economic growth slowed further.

The Great Depression, predictably enough, swept out Hoover, whose “do something” ethic turned a recession into a depression, and brought in FDR, with his second-rate mind. He soon enough began to think of himself as a savior, empowered (by perverse logic) to uplift the downtrodden by running roughshod over America’s businesses. What he accomplished, in fact, was a deeper and longer depression. (By contrast, the economy quickly rebounded from the deep recession of 1920-21 because “do nothing” Harding did nothing but encourage business.) LBJ’s deliberate mimicking of FDR’s New Deal put in motion the Great Society, the aftermath of which has been economic growth on a par with that of the TR-Wilson era.

Now comes Barack Obama, a storefront version of TR, FDR, and LBJ. “Bush fatigue” elected him and presented him with a Democrat-controlled Congress. He took his luck for a kind of divine mandate, which he exploited to impose upon Americans his ruinous visions of universal health care, Keynesian deficit-spending, and defensive weakness (masked by the inconsequential if satisfying erasure of bin Laden).

God save us from “leaders” who want to be our saviors. For every Lincoln — whose principal legacy was the forcible stitching up of a union that has yet to heal — there are too many TRs, WWs, FDRs, LBJs, and BHOs.

Related posts:
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Price of Government Redux
The Real Burden of Government
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The Mega-Depression
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Money, Credit, and Economic Fluctuations
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Why the “Stimulus” Failed to Stimulate
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Commandeered Economy